I have been writing a post over and over again about the battle between the reader’s ego and the reader’s entertainment. I mean those beautiful bits of prose that we’re so proud of, and that are teeth clenchingly hard to cut out, because we’ve realised that they may not add anything to the story. But despite my best efforts, it wasn’t happening. I got lost along the way amongst peacock metaphors, comparing writers to preening peacocks displaying their pretty tail feathers for the reader and shouting COMPLIMENT ME READER!! (an image that made me chuckle)
Do you ever get that, when a blog post just isn’t happening? Anyway, instead I wrote this about exhibitionism – which is something I find rather fascinating.
I read somewhere, and I can’t remember where it was (which is very unhelpful, I know), that things like reality TV are turning us into voyeurs. We don’t just want to see films and interviews featuring our favourite celebrities, we want fly on the wall cameras showing us what toothpaste they use, and what side of the bed they sleep on. We want to see the arguments they have with their other halves and how pissed off they get when stuck in traffic.
I was thinking, though, that we haven’t just recently become voyeurs, we have always been voyeurs. In books we not only get to see the brand of toothpaste and the side of the bed (ok not really, because that would be incredibly dull – I mean those intimate moments of a character’s life), but we get to see inside people’s minds. We get to see their darkest fears and most petty secrets. We get to see each grubby little failing, each devastating insecurity. There is nothing a character can hide from us.
And I think that because of that, writers are the ultimate exhibitionists. Actors pretend to be someone else and prance in front of the camera. Singers will often have their performing persona as they exhibit themselves on the stage. All performers exhibit a certain part of themselves, but it rarely goes beyond the superficial, the outside.
Writers on the other hand, have to disembowel themselves and smear their guts all over the page. We have to take our own darkest fears, those petty aspects of ourselves we don’t like, and all our failings and hang them up for our readers’ viewing pleasure as they follow our characters through their adventures.
To quote Hemmingway: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed”, and Neil Gaiman: “The moment that you feel, just possibly, you are walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind, and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself….That is the moment you might be starting to get it right.”
It makes complete sense. Having a character facing a dragon, that is a bit of fun and adventure. Having a character come to grips with her fear that if she is ever less than perfect her world will collapse, that is visceral, that is when we really get sucked in and connect. We can’t write anything that is really true without exposing some of our ugly bits in the process.
Actors pretend to be someone else and try to convince us that they are that person. Writers splatter themselves all over the page and try to convince us that it isn’t them, but the characters. It’s terrifying and thrilling. And it has got to be the greatest form of exhibitionism.